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Yosef Tunkel - Der Tunkeler

Translated by Eial Dujovny

Yosef Tunkel, the humorist writer, who was known among the Jewish masses in Poland and America by his pen name Der Tunkeler (the Dark One or Scoundrel) was born in Bobruisk in 1881. [1] His father was a poor teacher, and as a child, who was sickly, lame and shortsighted, he captured the attention of his elders due to his talent for drawing. Some local intellectuals took him under their wing and Tunkel was sent to the Vilna Art Academy at the age of 16, completing his studies in 1899. However, due to his shortsightedness Tunkel could not dedicate himself to painting and instead, devoted himself wholeheartedly to literature, as he wandered from city to city, returning occasionally to his hometown.

In 1901, his first poems were published in the paper Der Yud, published by Yosef Luria and from that point forward he was a prolific writer of poems, stories, feuilletons, humorous sketches, plays and children's stories in Yiddish. Most of these were published in the Yiddish newspapers of Europe and America and served as material for broadcasters and reciters who performed his material on stage.

From 1906 to 1910 Tunkel traveled for the first time to the United States and founded several humorous newspapers, of which the Der Groyser Kundes [2] continued to circulate long after he returned to Russia. In 1911 Tunkel was a regular contributor to the Warsaw paper Der Moment and served as the editor of the weekly humor supplement called Der Krumer Spiegel (The Crooked Mirror). During World War I, Joseph Tunkel left for Bobruisk and from there to Kiev and Odessa and only returned to Warsaw after the cessation of hostilities.

In the spring of 1931 Der Tunkeler visited Israel and described his trip in his book "Fort a Yid kein Eretz-Yisroel" (The Travels of a Jew in Israel) (Warsaw 1932). In 1939, Der Tunkeler was on holiday in Belgium when the Second World War began. With the Nazi invasion of Belgium, Der Tunkeler escaped across the border into France where he was arrested by the Vichy government and was interned in a camp with other foreign Jews. Tunkel succeeded to escape captivity in the Spring of 1941 and made his way back to the United States, where he became a regular contributor to the newspaper Fervarts (The Forward). In the final years of his life, he was ill and his eyesight failed him. He died in New York on the 14th of the month of Av, Tashat (9.8.1949).

During the years that Yosef Tunkel resided in Bobruisk, he published humorous pamphlets that reflected the life and goings-on of the city. Unfortunately, these pamphlets have not found their way to us. A humorous description of Bobruisk in 1910 appears on page 600 in this book. Below is a selection from Der Tunkeler's autobiographical notes on his trip from Bobruisk to Vilna at the age of 16.

Translator's Footnotes

[1]According to documents uncovered by this translator, Joseph Tunkel listed his date of birth as January 1, 1878. Return to text

[2]“The Big Stick” (1908 – 1927) Was a pro-democratic journal that was opposed to Russia, big-business and Reform and Assimilated Judaism. Return to text

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